As well as working tirelessly putting together festivals such as The Gum Ball and Dashville Skyline on his family property in the Hunter Valley of NSW, Matt ‘Magpie’ Johnson also finds time to write music with Magpie Diaries. Sanctuary is their debut album and finds them inhabiting a sweet spot right at the nexus of country, soul and psychedelia.
There’s a warm and communal feel right across the album, its woolly and homespun vibe come off like The Band but they colour the music with some beautiful saxophone playing that combines perfectly with cosmic Americana pedal steel sounds and plenty of country twang and strum in the guitars. The single ‘When Love Comes’ is a playful romp of a song with a clever descending melody in the chorus, a counterpoint to the upbeat pulse of the music. Elsewhere, Johnson’s voice recalls modern Americana acts such as Phosphorescent, The Felice Brothers and Houndmouth. He can also dig down into swampy blues as they do on ‘Wastin’ Time’.
Johnson knows his way around a hook but never overplays his hand. On the wonderful aching ballad ‘If You’re Hurting’ (and the closer ‘Don’t Give Up Now’) he cuts right to the core of the need for friend and family support during hard times. It’s one of those sad songs with a silver lining where the music and the message are in perfect melancholic harmony. The flip side is ‘Honey’, a joyous celebration of love – the defining element at the core of this impressive debut album.